Computer Scientist Grace Hopper, Subject of Today’s Google Doodle, Rocked Letterman in 1986

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 9 2013 1:56 PM

Computer Scientist Grace Hopper, Subject of Today’s Google Doodle, Rocked Letterman in 1986

FT-Google doodle
The Google Doodle for Dec. 9, 2013.

Screen grab from Google.

Today’s Google doodle honors Grace Hopper, the late, great computer scientist who was known as the “queen of software.” Had she not died in 1992, Hopper would have turned 107 today.

Hopper, who received a Ph.D. from Yale in mathematics before entering the Navy and working her way up to rear admiral, was a pioneer in the early days of computing. Women were well-represented in the field in the 1940s, but Hopper's work stands out: She helped create the programming language COBOL, for instance, as well as the colloquial language we still use for computers. As the Washington Post explains, "She also once discovered a problematic dead moth in a computer; she de-bugged the computer, saved the specimen and would be credited with popularizing the term 'bug in the system.' ”

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She also knew how to work a crowd. In 1986, shortly before her 80th birthday and just after she retired from the Navy, Hopper chatted with David Letterman for a full 10 minutes about her career in the military, what exactly a “nanosecond” is, and how hard it is to buy pantyhose. She’s delightfully smart-alecky in the interview: When Letterman asks her why she joined the Navy at the age of 37 in 1943, she responds, “Well, World War II, to begin with.”

In the clip below, Hopper reminisces about when “the Navy ordered me the first big computer in the United States”—the Mark 1.

Watch the rest of the interview—in which she explains what a nanosecond is and alludes briefly to Moore’s Law—on YouTube. (Video via Hacker News.)

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

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